Marine litter has been recognised as one of the major threats to marine ecosystems in the Mediterranean Sea. Tourism, fishing and recreational activities are among the main sources of this litter. Marine mammals, seabirds, turtles, fish and invertebrates have all been reported to ingest marine debris, especially plastic. In particular, entanglement in marine litter has been reported for at least 20 pinniped (seal) species, at least 14 cetaceans, all seven species of marine turtles, and more than 56 species of seabirds.
The overall aim of the Clean Sea LIFE project was to support the application of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) and EU biodiversity policy relating to marine litter. The specific objectives were: to increase awareness of marine litter, empowering citizens to become part of the solution; to remove existing litter, including lost fishing gear, and prevent further littering; to promote "Fishing For Litter" initiatives and to train fishing industry professionals in responsible practices; and to provide guidelines for the management of marine litter, increase exchange of knowledge and the uptake of best practices, and assist authorities in achieving a Good Environmental Status of the sea, as required under the MSFD.
The Clean Sea LIFE project was implemented in several coastal Italian regions, although most of the project’s “Fishing For Litter” activities were concentrated in the Adriatic Sea. The project team engaged 170 000 people in clean up and dissemination activities, over four years. Nearly 1 000 clean-up operations were organised, both large and small, of which half were organised by stakeholders themselves, along with around 1 000 dissemination events. The project team organised several large events to clean beaches and the seafloor, and a huge quantity of waste and plastic garbage was removed (about 112 tons). The largest underwater clean-up event ever organised in Italy, "Operation Spazzamare", involved hundreds of fishermen, and military and civilian divers, who removed 92 tons of waste from the seafloor. 283 monitoring activities were conducted on beaches and the seabed using the Clean Sea LIFE protocol. This helped to identify major sources of marine litter and the areas most affected.
Around 34 million people were reached by the project’s awareness campaign, via social media and on national TV, where the project team also promoted the EU’s efforts in tackling marine litter to 59% of Italians. Clean Sea LIFE staff estimated that about 100 000 people have visited the project’s eight travelling exhibitions. In addition, more than 20 000 people and a total of 685 stakeholders took the project’s Pledge to the Sea. The project team organised training webinars that were followed by a total of 267 teachers, and officers of the Carabinieri Forestali, to build capacity to fight marine litter. Furthermore, 248 school classes and over 5 000 students followed the Marine Litter classes. Clean Sea LIFE staff attended 84 meetings, including scientific meetings.
The main direct environmental benefit is the reduced habitat degradation and impact caused by marine litter on biodiversity, as over 112 tons of marine litter were removed, including 600 lost fishing gears from underwater (probably the amount is underestimated as many clean-up activities were unreported). The impact on biodiversity of the removal of marine litter is expected to be significant, as it is one of the major threats to marine ecosystems due to entanglement, ingestion and suffocation of marine wildlife, as well as transfer of plastic contaminants along the food chain and the spread of invasive species.
Beach clean-ups were carried out in marine turtle and Kentish plover nesting areas. Divers collected lost fishing gears and thousands of metres of monofilament lines, particularly in areas of high biodiversity, Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) or critical nursery areas for elasmobranchs. The impact on marine biodiversity of such discarded fishing gears is considerable, as they can continue to fish indefinitely and harm marine soft corals (gorgonians). The project team also promoted the use of reusable water flasks to reduce dependence on single-use plastics; and distributed 38 000 personal cigarette butt holders and 40 transparent ashtrays to people on beaches, which led to a large reduction of smoking waste on those beaches.
The project contributed to national and EU policy and legislation. A project campaign, promoted by associated beneficiaries Legambiente and MedSharks in collaboration with other NGOs, led to a national law banning micro-beads in cosmetics in early 2020. The project inspired a draft law to facilitate “Fishing For Litter” activities, and six local regulations banning balloon releases. Moreover, project staff assisted authorities to apply EU laws, for example, prosecuting a marine litter spill event.
Replication of the activities was pursued throughout the project, by increasing the number of actors that committed to new procedures to reduce littering, increase clean-ups and reduce single-use items. Some of the project activities have been already replicated, such as “Fishing For Litter”, that involved the fishermen of San Benedetto del Tronto in the frame of the pilot-project "A pesca di plastica" promoted by the Italian Ministry of Environment. This action received massive media exposure for such a campaign which led to it being awarded a coveted Blue Flag. Maruggio. The first city council to ban the mass release of balloons, also received national media coverage.
In terms of economic and social benefits, coastal communities that depend on fishing and tourism directly benefitted from the reduction of marine litter. In ports, large scale “Fishing For Litter” activities had a significant impact for a very limited investment. Crews of fishing boats confirmed that marine litter reduces catch by decreasing the efficiency of fishing gear. Diving, yachting and fishing clubs benefited from reduced entanglement of marine litter (especially discarded fishing gear) in propellers, which is an economic and safety issue for them. By fostering collaborations and a participatory approach, activities should continue well beyond the project end.
Further information on the project can be found in the project's Layman report and After-LIFE Communication Plan (see "Read more" section).